Thursday, August 16, 2012

Missouri U.S. Senate Race

Race of the Day

Missouri U.S. Senate

August 16, 2012
82 Days Until Election Day

Status: Democrat Incumbent
2008 Presidential Result: Red State (Midwest)

Outlook: Leans Republican

Over the past dozen years, the Show Me State has often had some of the hottest Senate races in the country. Six years ago, Democrat Claire McCaskill narrowly defeated an incumbent, allowing her party to win the Senate majority they now have. This year, she is perhaps the most vulnerable incumbent in the entire Senate, and her defeat could very well allow Republicans to take that majority back.

Despite the current polls, showing McCaskill significantly behind, I would not at all be surprised if this race goes down to the wire, or if it eventually looks like a tossup, but it would be hard to deny that McCaskill, who has been damaged by ethical questions, including taxpayer money for the use of a private airplane which has Republicans referring to her as the "Sky Queen", is extremely endangered in 2012.

McCaskill was considering a rising star in her party when she was elected to the Senate in 2006, being able to combine a left of center ideology with a background in the rural part of her purple state. She became an early and enthusiastic backer of her neighboring state colleague Barack Obama and was even talked about as a potential runnning mate for him in 2008. While she may not have actually been on his short-list, she did sign up to be one of his top national surrogates and made many campaign and television appearances on behalf of his successful campaign, even claiming (hopefully in a joking manner) to have spit on an earpiece before it was handed over to John McCain surrogate Mitt Romney.

Seeking reelection though, much has changed, as McCaskill is trying to walk a very thin line in regards to trying to distance herself from the Obama Administration, as the incumbent President is considered an underdog in Missouri this year. She is not even attending the upcoming national convention of her party, after having a prominent role there four years ago. While Obama was only closely defeated in Missouri in 2008, most experts expect it to be a state that Democrats will cede to the Romney-Ryan ticket, which is likely to complicate things for candidates there down the ballot like McCaskill. It might also be worth noting that the last time she ran in a Presidential year, she was defeated statewide as her party's 2004 nominee for Governor.

The Senator might have believed she had reason to smile though a week ago on Tuesday, as the Republican opponent she clearly most wanted to run against, won the nomination to face her over two major competitors, who not long before, had been expected to face ahead of the eventual winner, Congressman Todd Akin.

In defeating businessman John Brunner, and former State Treasurer Sarah Steelman, Akin earned the right to take on McCaskill, even though polling had shown the other two Republicans ran the strongest against her, perhaps leaving her with little hope of rescuing her seat at all, while Akin only had a narrow lead. In fact, the McCaskill campaign actively intervened in the primary campaign, running ads criticizing Akin's very conservative voting record in Congress, which was designed to perhaps poison his image for general election voters, while clearly at the same time sounding an intentional message designed to make him look better among the state's conservative Republican primary voters who would decide the nomination, as Akin was referred to as the "true conservative" in the field.

There are many interesting aspects about the recently concluded Republican Senate primary in Missouri. All three of the major candidates appeared to have had serious conservative support, and there was not really an ideological battle within the race. All things considered though, Akin, strongly backed by many religious and social conservatives, probably had shown the most loyalty to the movement though, through his voting record in Congress, while Steelman, who had Sarah Palin's endorsement, was once considered more of a mavericky moderate type, and while Brunner, who had never run for office before, and was backed by some national Tea Party groups, had given money to a Democrat not long ago.

There was much jockeying among Missouri Republicans as the Senate race got underway after the 2010 midterms. A few potential candidates opted to sit the race out or to run for other offices. Akin was considered the front-runner when he first entered the field, with the understanding that Steelman, who had just lost a bid for the GOP Gubernatorial nomination in 2008, would struggle with party activists. Brunner seemed to come into the race late and caught fire, and for a while looked like he would follow the mold of other "outsider" Tea-Party backed candidates this cycle of winning the nomination. Steelman was also considered to be doing quite well in the race and a potential winner, as many believed that Akin, who had the burden of being identified with Congress, would finish in third place.  When all was said and done though, Akin surged late and won the primary by a fairly solid margin, with Brunner finishing narrowly ahead of Steelman for the silver. As I mentioned yesterday in discussing the state's Gubernatorial contest, both Brunner and Steelman should perhaps be kicking themselves a bit now about not having set their sites on that job instead.

Democrats were thrilled and some Republican political junkies were left wondering if they had perhaps thrown the election away by nominating a very conservative Congressman, with a lengthy voting record that Democrats could exploit, while either Brunner or Steelman looked stronger against McCaskill. Nonetheless, Akin, even while in the middle of a tightly contested three-way primary, was still at least a couple points ahead of McCaskill in most polls. His path to winning may be slightly more complicated and a bit more narrow, but a win would be a win for Republicans nonetheless. Eyebrows were raised by a Survey USA poll taken last week (which showed decent numbers for Democrats elsewhere) that had Akin ahead of McCaskill by a 51-40 margin to start off the general election. If those numbers are accurate, it appears that Missouri voters are prepared to dump McCaskill in favor of any credible Republican. Akin, who has represented suburban and exurban St. Louis in Congress for twelve years does have a history of winning elections and seems prepared to fire back on McCaskill's voting record (and ethical transgressions) every bit as much as she will go after his record. This will be an expensive race, with millions of dollars thrown in the mix by the national parties and outside interest groups.

From a purely political perspective, Akin may indeed not be the best candidate to take on McCaskill for Republicans, but it may not even matter. From an ideological conservative standpoint, he is likely to be a great U.S. Senator. McCaskill and the Democrats wished to face him in November, but it may be that they should have been more careful what they wished for.

Akin campaign link:

2012 U.S. Senate races predicted thus far: 9 D, 5 R
Predicted U.S. Senate Balance of Power thus far: 39 D, 42 R